Up close shot of an orange prison jumpsuit

COVID-19 and Women in the US Criminal Legal System

By Cynthia Golembeski, Carolyn Sufrin, Brie Williams, Precious Bedell, Sherry Glied, Ingrid Binswanger, Donna Hylton, Tyler Winkelman, and Jaimie Meyer

Health and economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harm women, and particularly women of color, involved in the criminal legal system.

Structural racism, sexism, poverty, substandard healthcare in jails and prisons, and the health effects of incarceration worsen women’s health. The pandemic only compounds these effects. Often overlooked or less visible, incarcerated women are at significantly increased risk of acquiring infectious illness, including COVID-19.

Alternatives to incarceration, and care continuity for chronic health conditions, including substance-use and psychiatric disorders, which disproportionately affect women, are necessary within the current pandemic and beyond.

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Woman holding sign that reads "I can't breathe."

Black Women Can’t Breathe

By Michele Goodwin

Years before George Floyd begged to be released from under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, Barbara Dawson, a fifty-seven year old Black woman, died begging a police officer, John Tadlock, not to remove her oxygen mask. Her death occurred right outside the Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, Florida, shortly before Christmas in 2015.

Just before Officer Tadlock’s arrival, Ms. Dawson arrived at the hospital seeking oxygen. The hospital’s response to Ms. Dawson’s request was to call law enforcement. Photographs show Ms. Dawson slumped next to the police car. A police recording captures the tragic end of Ms. Dawson’s life. Officer Tadlock reprimands Ms. Dawson: “Falling down like this and laying down, that’s not going to stop you from going to jail.”

Ms. Dawson’s life ended on the pavement, feet away from the entrance of the hospital that phoned the police on their patient — because she refused to leave. She lay there nearly twenty minutes before being pronounced dead. It turns out she had a blood clot in her lungs.

In some sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the image of Ms. Dawson, or the interactions of the hospital and officer, which further complicates the deadly exchange. Indeed, the interaction was far too normal: Black women fear for their health and safety when they do not seek care and, troublingly, even when they do.

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